Football fact 1,000,000,072: Guy McKenna was tops!

by Matt Zurbo

Not enough people give backmen their due.
We get all wooden over anything with the name Ablett in it. Hell, if Dick Smith wants to keep us buying Aussie, he should brand Ablett soup! There have been songs written about Carey and Lockett. We all know how grouse Judd is! What a jet!!

But sometimes I look back and give Guy McKenna a thought.  And his mate, Glen Jakovich.
Champion is a big word. We throw it around. And in the Hype that has become the AFL, it gets thrown around too much. Then, when the commentators become savvy to that, they change the name of it. Players become Superstars. And Out-and-out Superstars, because it sounds more glamorous, more American, like Celebrities. Like Brad Pitt is a Superstar. It all means the same thing, though. There are only a fistful true Champions in any era. A Champion is someone who does what they do, and is the best at it, for a decade. McLeod was a Champion. Daisy has about seven years of this year to go.
Guy was one. So was Glen.
Bluey had balance. He ran smooth. He defended well. He did all the things a great defender does.
He ran both ways. Wilson and Hardy only ran one. Off they went, time and again, at the flick of a switch, last seen crossing the wing, wind blowing through their cowboy hats. They were great fun to watch.
Guy pushed back hard.
Yet, more than that, what made him a Champion, and Glen, was, when Guy got it, he was so goddamn no fuss. He would play on, always, and always towards goal, get around an opponent, then deliver by hand or foot.
Every time he got the ball he got around one. Every time, within a baulk, the number of men on the ground would be Visitors 17, Eagles 18.
Every time Bluey got a possession, the Eagles got two. By breaking lines, he broke up the other mob, and took the heat off whoever he gave it to. Opponents up the line would be drawn to Bluey. The handball or kick would go over the top to blokes now in the clear. He made wingers look good.
Guy McKenna never gave it to somebody who was under the pump.

These days, which are great days, each good team has a line-breaker running off half back. But they do it more with blistering pace. Guy wasn’t especially fast, he had nous. This meant he was always balanced when he delivered it. Cool. Not catching up to his feet. He could find time in a clock’s final tick.

Glen wouldn’t have to baulk. He’d flex or shrug. How the hell did a man so big carry the ball so much? And if you were out-marking him, as could be done on a constantly fast lead, he would swat downwards at the ball, accidently giving the back of your head a fair old clip. You earned your kicks.

The backman worth watching these days, more so than Scarlett, is Brian Lake. He has personality, even if it often seems stroppy. He backs himself. None of this two fisted punching. He goes for marks, he takes marks. He launches attack after attack. Brian Lake is a grab-plucking battleship, who lets other backman feel that the game can also be about them, too. The way he plays bows to no-one. He doesn’t have to be a ‘doggered’ backman, or a ‘dower’ backman, or even an ‘attacking’ one. Like Goddard just has to be Goddard, Brian Lake simply has to be Brian Lake.
Hurry back, mate.

The net result of watching Guy McKenna play was pure maths. When he was on the ground the opposition were outnumbered. There was something somewhere close to poetry in seeing him take them on. Yet, something honest in the way he’d always put stopping his man first.
Well, that’s how I remember McKenna. Not as a Champion backman.

As a Champion.

There’s nothing wrong with that.


  1. Phil Dimitriadis says


    a symbolic moment occurred for me the time Plugger elbowed Bluey at Moorabbin in 89′. It was that moment when one realised that footy was changing from celebrated thuggery to one of appreciating skill and creativity over the biff.

    Bluey was the prototype of the modern defender in many ways. Tis creative (and solid) defence that sets up the loose man and allows teams to carry the ball forward. It’s not a new thing, but Bluey was one of the early masters in the art of execution.

  2. Mark Doyle says

    Some interesting thoughts Matt!

    I was also a big fan of McKenna’s football, especially his calmness under pressure. I am not sure whether he was a champion, but he definitely was a very good A grade player. I believe the word champion is used very loosely by football supporters and media buffoons.

    As a Geelong supporter, West Coast gave us a lot of grief in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, especially in the 92 and 94 grand finals, but I always liked the way a lot of the West Coast blokes played their footy. They included McKenna, Kemp, Mainwaring, Turley, Lewis, Brennan, Matera, Heady, Sumich, Pyke, Jakovich and Worsfold. My favourite West Coast player was Dean Kemp.

  3. Chalkdog says

    I heard Jarrod Harbrow recently confirming that it was so much easier last year when surrounded by Lake, Morris, Shagger and Gilbee. He realised that he could be attacking because the others were backing him up.
    I saw a lot of “the Chooks” in late 80s early 90s and think Bluey was lucky to be surrounded by so many quality defenders. He rarely got the number 2 forward or for that matter the number 4, and he was athletic enough and disciplined enough to excel. Even Peter Wilson [ex Tiger], Karl Langdon and Tony Evans looked good in that side.

  4. Skip of Skipton says

    Interesting selection of right hand men Bluey has at his side also. Ken Hinkley; a more briliant version of himself. Dean Solomon; a more physical version. Marcus Ashcroft; a Home Brand version.

  5. Thanks for writing about some great WA players, Matt. Made me think about great defenders. You are right that we focus so much on great goal kicking forwards and possession monopolising midfielders.
    My favourite to watch growing up was David Dench. That fearless, rebounding, running style that he pioneered. Gary Pert was in the same mould, and I see Scarlett as (having been) a great player in their mould. I know SOS was a great player and he played in that Lockett/Dunstall era of great full forwards, so he had to use every defensive trick. But I remember him more as a long limbed octopus entangling those dangerous goalkickers in his net. A great player – just not as spectacular in my mind.

  6. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks everyone.
    Interesting thoughts, Chalkdog. Reminds me of the Dunstal/Lockett argument.
    That’s hilarious. Skip! And cool! A half-back’s club.
    Mark, yeah, I agree the word Champ is overused terribly. Maybe it was because I was young (and a backman), but I really, really rated him.

    I remember at the time of McKenna etc all, being annoyed at how much the word was used and did a list of ten current Champs. Had to cull a lot of great players. Where is that list now? Haha.

    Speaking of which…

    Rohan Smith. He was my favorite player for years (along with Martin Pike!!!! (more on him later)). Champoin is often in the eye of the beholder. Someone you saw with young eyes may not get the same rating with seasoned eyes. Sometimes you just barrack for a bloke too much to be impartial (GO Bewick,GO! – no champion to any hardened judge, or by basic football logic, but a Champ to me for how he played)
    An AFL legend once said anyone who plays over 300 AFL games is automatically a champion. I dunno. Was Sammy Newman a champ? Haha.
    An opposition coach once said of Rohan “Yeah, we had match-ups for every single player when we played the Bulldogs, except Rohan. We’d just sit around the selection table and hope he had a bad game.”
    There IS NO DOUBT (haha), in my mind, anyway, he was a champion bloke!!! (And, surely, still is)
    But if Champion is the rare word it should be, how do any of you think Rohan rates?

  7. Matt Zurbo says

    Peter, you ripper!

    A Gary Pert Story.

    It always pays to have an open mind, and be proven wrong. Us mugs on the boundary aren’t in the coalface. Then again, I’ve met some AFL players who I just plain disagreed with. But, geez, ya wanna listen to what they say.
    I was kicking with a mate on a no-name oval somewhere when Dermi rocked up, doing laps. He had just retired. Soon enough he walked up, looked us in the eye, shook our hands introduced himself and asked, if we didn’t mind, if he might have a kick with us. You give it, you get it. Instant, total respect.
    A mad Roy supporter, I asked him who the best defender was, just to hear Paul Roos’ name mentioned. He said:
    “Nah. You always thought you were a chance with Roosy. He went for marks, he zoned off. Pert was the hardest bloke I played against. With him you earned every damn bloody kick.”
    Both players did what they had to for the club. The Lions needed Roos’ attack, badly. Poor Stevens. But, yeah, I can see why Dermie rated Pert so much.

  8. John Butler says

    Good stuff Matt

    While we’re talking West Coast, I’d like to throw in a vote for Ashley McIntosh.

    Spent most of his career deep in defence, but I always thought he was a freakish talent who could have played anywhere.

    One epic battle with Carlton late in ’95, McIntosh was playing with his natural (left) kicking foot hurt. He was thrown forward when the Eagles needed something, marked out on the right boundary 45 out, and calmly slotted the goal from the impossible angle with his ‘wrong’ foot. I don’t think he had a wrong foot.

    It didn’t please me at the time, but I’ve always remembered it.

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